IREA would be exempt from proposed state oversight of electric co-ops

One of the ironies of the controversy over proposed Colorado Public Utilities Commission (PUC) oversight of the state’s second largest utility, Tri-State, is that the rural electric co-op arguably most in need of increased state supervision, the IREA, would be unaffected.

Eighteen of the state’s 22 rural electric co-ops (REAs) would be impacted by PUC approval of Tri-State’s integrated resource plans — annual documents that detail the utility’s energy loads — but the IREA (Intermountain Rural Electric Association) and three other co-ops don’t get their power from Tri-State.

The IREA, a nearly 138,000-member co-op in the suburbs between Denver and Colorado Springs, buys its power wholesale from investor-owned Xcel Energy, the state’s largest utility. Xcel’s resource plans are already subject to PUC approval, and the company is subject to a 2004 voter-approved 20-percent renewable-energy mandate by the year 2020.

Tri-State, IREA and the state’s 21 other member-owned co-ops are only required to get 10 percent of their power from renewable resources by 2020 — a law passed by the State Legislature in 2007.

Westminster-based Tri-State provides power to 44 REAs in Nebraska, Wyoming, New Mexico and Colorado, where 18 of the state’s 22 co-ops get between 95 and 100 percent of their energy from coal-heavy Tri-State (more than 70 percent of its load).

Three other Colorado co-ops don’t belong to Tri-State: Holy Cross Energy in Glenwood Springs, Grand Valley Rural Power Lines out of Grand Junction, and Yampa Valley Electric Association in Steamboat Springs. Holy Cross, which invested more than $100 million in the new coal-fired Comanche 3 power plant near Pueblo, has a good rep on the renewable front, but still faces a contentious board election June 5.

But it’s the IREA that has been the subject of environmentalist’s wrath in recent years, with renewable-energy advocates aggressively running for its board and crying foul over questionable election practices, and state lawmakers tailoring legislation specifically aimed at increasing the co-op’s conservation and renewable portfolio.

The IREA gets 93 percent of its power (much of it from natural gas-fired plants) from Xcel, but has invested $366 million in the new Comanche 3 plant that would reduce its dependence on Xcel to about 43 percent of the co-op’s load.

That will take Xcel’s 20-percent-renewable yoke off the IREA while also keeping the co-op free of potential PUC scrutiny of its renewable load – a boon for an REA led by a general manager and board majority that openly disputes the validity of global warming science.

Meanwhile, enviros and a growing number of consumers will continue to demand faster change and more renewable energy from utilities and rural electric co-ops that have resisted Gov. Ritter’s New Energy Economy. And Ritter himself will walk a fine line between pushing for change and appeasing the co-ops with entrenched values.

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